Wednesday, July 18, 2012

All Science Is Microbiology

As with any major news story, there has been a wave of editorial cartoons referencing the discovery of the Higgs boson. But I noticed something funny about the way some of these cartoonists have chosen to depict this event: the kinds of lab settings that they draw, from the equipment being used to depictions of (what is apparently supposed to be) the particle itself, suggest to me that the field of science in which this discovery occurred is not theoretical physics but microbiology.

Here is the cartoon (from my own local paper, the Kansas City Star) that made this obvious to me:
A circular window showing several round, membraneous shapes that look somewhat like amoebas. A speech bubble comes from somewhere in that window, saying, "Shhh ... I'm undocumented!" Title text: "Scientists discover the God Particle ..." Caption: "Working Here Illegally Forever!"
I don't know where that speech bubble is supposed to be coming from, but the things inside the circle (which looks a lot like the view through a microscope to me) are obviously cells of some kind. Except for the one on the right, which seems to be a grossly outsized mitochrondrion ...
Once I saw that, I remembered this earlier cartoon, where the visual non sequitur had gone right by me the first time, but after seeing the above cartoon, with the amoeba-looking thing labeled "God particle," it finally clicked for me.
A man in a lab coat stands at a desk, peering through a microscope. A crowd of men in suits yell questions at him: "What does it say about gay marriage?" "School prayer?" "Abortion?" "Was it created 6,000 years ago?" "Is it American?" The guy in the lab coat mutters, "Go away." Title text: Eureka! Hosanna! Scientists Discover the "God Particle."
I hope he's using the highest possible magnification on that thing ...
The microscope. The guy in this cartoon is looking through a light microscope. Light microscopes use visible light passed through a series of glass lenses to magnify whatever's on the slide; the greatest degree of magnification possible with this technology is an image 1,000 times the actual size of the object.


According to this webpage, the smallest thing you can see with just your eyes is 0.1 mm (100 micrometers, or 100,000 nanometers) long; that would mean, I think, that the smallest thing you could see at 100x magnification would be 0.001 mm (one micrometer, 1,000 nanometers) long. That same webpage lists the size of the smallest thing visible by light microscopy as 500 nanometers; another website gives the theoretical limit as 200 nanometers, which is approximately equal to the wavelength of visible light.


The webpage I cited first in the above paragraph, the "Cell Size and Scale" page, further states that the most powerful electron microscopes (microscopes that don't rely on visible light, but which use a beam of electrons to illuminate whatever they're pointed at) can resolve individual molecules, even individual atoms.


Here is a page on CERN's website that does a decent job of conveying just how small the particles they're trying to learn about are:
The infinitesimal scale of particle physics is mind-blowing, and rather abstract to imagine. If we enlarge an atom to the size of the Earth, then the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus of the atom would each measure the length of an Olympic stadium. Smaller still are the quarks. If we consider our hypothetical atom blown up to the size of the Earth, then a quark would be smaller than a tennis ball. 
However, this does not give us a very good idea of the size of the atom itself. So staying with the same analogy, but scaling things in the opposite direction, if an atom was the size of the Earth, then an amoeba would be as big as our solar system. Going even further, the distance from the centre of Geneva to CERN (about 10 km) would stretch across the entire Milky Way galaxy.  
So if, as mentioned above, a single atom represents the smallest thing that can be seen by any microscope, these subatomic particles are smaller than that by many orders of magnitude. So the possibility of seeing even one of the larger subatomic particles through a light microscope makes the idea of me taking off my glasses, peering into a cup of coffee and watching individual molecules of sugar dissolve sound plausible by comparison.

More examples of cartoons showing people looking through light microscopes at the "God particle:
In a room labeled "'GOD PARTICLE' LAB", a guy in blue coat peers through a microscope at a cutout in a long tube. A luminous old man with a long white beard and a halo leans over his shoulder and asks "Can I take a peek?"
Whatever you do, don't blink!
 Here's one showing the "God particle" in what appears to be a petri dish:
A group of men in lab coats stand around a desk with a round, shallow dish on it. One man takes notes, three look on and another asks the dish, "Why are England so rubbish at penalties?" Title text: "God particle to Answer the Big Questions"
This one is from England, so at least it's not just Americans who don't know how big the Higgs is!
... and, finally, here's one showing it in a test tube:
A guy wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves, with a pair of goggles perched on top of his head, holds a comically oversized test tube stoppered with a cork. Inside the test tube is a luminous dot. A woman holding a telephone holds a door ajar, leans into the room where the guy is standing and says, "God Almighty on line 2 ... says He wants His particle back!"
This one is visible to the naked eye!
(People might associate the test tube more with chemistry than with microbiology, but you can indeed grow cultures in a test tube. Bacteria cultured in a test tube are going to be suspended in a liquid growth medium, rather than spread across a solid one, but they can live there just as well.)


Anyway, I got a huge kick out of these cartoons, seeing as how they unconsciously nudge you toward the conclusion I named in my post title: All Science Is Microbiology. Even when it's theoretical physics. 


I have no idea if anyone besides me finds this funny; of anyone who reads, or might read, here I'd be most confident of thevenerablecorvex sharing my appreciation of it. Hopefully if I name her, she will see this post and laugh, too.

5 comments:

voxcorvegis said...

Thanks for the link! And I've often noticed that, insofar as most media is concerned, all science is chemistry (or at the very least, uses test tubes; I suppose it could be microbiology as well).
Unless it's astronomy, but in that case it will always be done (improbably) using refracting telescopes.

One other thing I would like to add: the Higgs boson is electrically neutral, so it doesn't interact with photons; thus, you wouldn't be able to see it using a microscope even if it were big enough.

voxcorvegis said...

...Actually, come to think of it, do you ever read TVTropes? This seems like it could be one.

Lindsay said...

I do read it, but sporadically, so I don't know what all is on there.

I had also seen the thing about test tubes being emblematic of All Science --- meant to put a clause about that in my post, but couldn't get the words to gel quite the way I wanted.

That's interesting about the photons: I hadn't realized something needed to have an electric charge to interact with them. Or does scale enter into it, as well?

That also seems to imply that, if it could be magically blown up to a theoretically detectable size, it would be invisible to electron microscopes as well.

memescience said...

This is a great post! Thanks for sharing.

The reason for this absurd illustrations might be, that a physicist sitting in front of a monitor or of a piece of paper does look less interesting (and even less scientific).

cell science said...

I do read it reguraly.This is good.Thanks for sharing.